words :: Dan Rubinstein.
Growing up in Ontario, Mark Scriver paddled anything that floated. He started canoeing with his family as a kid, then drifted into kayaking, progressing from flatwater to whitewater. In 1985, Scriver moved to Ottawa and joined the crew of canoeists and kayakers who played on the standing waves that rise for a couple months every spring just off Bate Island on the Ottawa River in the west end of the city. Scriver, a wilderness guide with Black Feather for 35 years and co-author with Paul Mason of Thrill of the Paddle, never really surfed. He wasn’t around the ocean much. But after getting into stand-up paddleboarding roughly 15 years ago, Scriver brought his 11-foot SUP to Bate Island, paddled across the eddy line and slid onto what locals call the “top wave”, a glassy-faced pocket fringed with foam.
And there he was, fleetingly balanced, paddle in hand, the river rushing and roaring beneath his board, and he was hooked.
“I got a little taste of surfing every few attempts,” recalls Scriver, “and then I figured out the move: tilt this way, steer that way, and you’re on the wave. Once you finally get it, it’s as comfortable as being on a bike, and it feels like you can stay out there forever.”
Scriver, who loves the finesse of single-blade paddling and the freedom to move your body around atop a paddleboard, brought his friend Larry Norman to Bate about 10 years ago. Norman, an emergency room doctor who competed for Canada in slalom canoe in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, had joined the lineup of boaters on the wave in the past. After watching Scriver surfing on his SUP, he borrowed a board and hit the water. “I didn’t catch it right away, but I got it pretty quickly,” says Norman, explaining that the hulls of slalom canoes and paddleboards interact with a standing wave in similar ways. “I still had to figure out the standing up part,” he adds. “This seems like the next chapter for a lot of canoeists: something that’s challenging, but something that you’re already halfway ready to do.”
“It’s as comfortable as being on a bike, and it feels like you can stay out there forever.”
Surfing a standing wave is not a novelty for Norman—he’s been doing it in boats for decades—but Bate Island’s urban accessibility, with eddy access and a pretty relaxed swim out, is unique. “The sensation is awesome, carving around on a decent-sized wave,” he says. “And it’s fun to be a beginner again.”
Norman and Jodi Bigelow—who runs a SUP lesson and rental business called Paddlefit just across the Ottawa River in Quebec—happened to be SUP surfing at Bate Island the first time I gave it a shot on a crisp Saturday afternoon in May 2018. Norman loaned me his extra helmet (more on safety in a minute) and Bigelow gave me a few tips, such as falling flat when you’re thrown off to avoid getting bashed on the rocks below. And fall I did, failing to even make it onto the wave, let alone ride. But when I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about surfing, and I returned to Bate more than a dozen times over the next few weeks, with a thrilling 30-second surf my longest run—a trajectory that Norman says is pretty common for rookies.
“The main thing is getting into the current successfully,” says Bigelow, a whitewater kayaker and former raft guide who first paddleboarded on a trip to Maui about 10 years ago. “And the skills you develop here, like how to maneuver your board and carve, you can take to the ocean if you have a chance to SUP surf there.”
The roots of river surfing go back to the 1970s in Munich, Germany, where a standing wave on the Eisbach—a manmade arm on the Isar River—began to draw attention. At first, riders stood on wooden planks and held onto ropes attached to a nearby bridge. Then they realized they didn’t need the ropes. But the activity was deemed too dangerous and illegal, and short-board surfers often had to run from the police after a session.
From Munich, river surfing has spread throughout Europe and jumped to North America, with kayakers and canoeists starting to cede space to surfers and SUP surfers since the early 2000s. In Canada, Olympic kayaker turned paddleboard designer Corran Addison reportedly surfed Montreal’s Habitat 67 standing wave in the St. Lawrence in 2002, inspiring thousands of others to follow.
Bate Island may be the best-known wave on the Ottawa, but there are a couple others (Sewer and Dessert) a little further downstream. There are also rideable waves in the whitewater section of the upper Ottawa River, such as Babyface near Beachburg, and on the Madawaska at Palmer Rapids, plus the lower Madawaska between Aumonds Bay and Buck Bay. If you’re new to SUP river surfing, it’s important to start on an easy beginner wave, and go with somebody who knows the river. Using the proper gear—including a quick-release leash, helmet, and wetsuit or drysuit, depending on the season—will also keep you safe. Be prepared to swim. And then to get back onto your board and try again.